Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Korea: A Spectacular by Frog

Grimm’s fairy tales are devotional literature and stories of self-empowerment, even in distant Korea. “Snow White”, who died multiple deaths, and “Cinderella” as a story of asymmetrical power structures serve as allegorical mirrors for the Korean people’s history of suffering in colonial modernity. The magazine “Fabula” (volume 62, 2021, issue 1/2, edited by Ahn Mi-Hyun, Kim Yeon Soo and Alfred Messerli / De Gruyter) follows the reception of the Grimm fairy tales in Korea as entertainment, educational and indictment pamphlets . Korean Germanists discuss warming, awakening and emancipatory aspects of children’s and household tales from the Japanese colonial period (1910 to 1945) through the era of the economic miracle and the “education fever” to today’s aging society. Since the first translation of a Grimm fairy tale in 1913, Japanese source texts were used until 1945, later English translations served as models. It was not until 1975 that the first complete translation by Kim Chang-Hwal, based on the German source text, was published.

The essay “Atrocities in Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales” by Kim Yeon Soo describes the 1920s as the early days of Korean reception of Grimm. Translators and intellectuals such as Choi Nam Seon and Bang Jeon Hwang, who had studied in Japan, had a formative effect. As a result of the 1919 independence movement, there were temporary reforms, including a relaxation of censorship. Grimm’s fairy tales in youth magazines such as “Eorini” (Children), which Bang founded in 1923, were also translations of social pain experiences. Bang campaigned for children’s rights, for the recognition of children as individuals. This activism betrayed hope for the future autonomous subject. In Korea, Bang also called for collecting local fables in the spirit of the Grimms: analogous to the self-affirmation of the Germans under Napoleon, folk poetry paved the way for modern nation-building in Korea.

The evil stepmother is unknown

Kim identifies strategies of inauthentic speech behind literal as well as softened translations: fairy tales were read as camouflaged indictments of the cruelty of the colonial masters or, toned down humorously, as satires on the rulers. The ordeal of “Cinderella” was translated into Choi Nam Seon’s Dongmyeong (“Ex Oriente Lux”) magazine in 1923, with the story taking place in Seoul and called Cinderella Kyung-hee. The figure of the evil stepmother, however, is hardly conveyable: a killing (step)mother, Kim explains, is unthinkable in Korea; the Korean image of the mother corresponds more to the caring mother goat from “The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids”.

Kim Nam Hui examines “Translation as a Means of Liberation and Modernization” in the 1920s using the example of the fairy tale of the frog prince. He, too, experienced mutations. The translation “The Frog -Sinseon” (1926) by Sim Eu Rin stands out for its originality: the frog is culturally assimilated. He is not just any bewitched prince from an unspecified country, but the celestial being Sinseon from the Taoist tradition. The Sinseon Frog proactively transforms to take the princess to heaven, and doesn’t need to be thrown against the wall to transform back.

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